Interview with Stephen Policoff, author of “Come Away”

What Makes The Genre You Write In Significant for You?

I have been told that my novels are slipstream. I’m not really sure what that means, and certainly I never had any thought about what genre I was writing.  My novels seem to be dark domestic comedies with a mild buzz of the supernatural. My first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, involved possible alien abduction on a vacation to Cape Cod; Come Away features the lore of the changeling and repeated sightings of a sinister green child within a happy marriage in upstate New York. My novel-in-progress has a ghost or two. I suppose that the boundary-crossing (is this a literary novel? Is this fantasy?) perplexes some people, which is OK with me.  Maybe that’s what slipstream means?

How important is research to you when writing a book?

I do some research when I am working on a novel, though usually it is a bit on the haphazard side.  I like to let random information and synchronicity take part in my work.  I was already working on Come Away when I happened on the myth of the Green Children of Woolpit ( it was in a book review about a compendium of unsolved mysteries).  I scribbled this information on a napkin (which I promptly lost) but that piece of arcane lore was tremendously important in writing the novel.  For the novel I am working on now, I have done a fair amount of desultory research into ghosts and hallucinations (a favorite subject of mine) but I also find that making stuff up—using a little of the research and then just going off in my own way—is most helpful to me.

What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

When I first started writing (I was about 12), I only wrote with a pen on a long yellow legal pad. I started keeping journals when I was in college, and I still like to scribble (black ink only!) in a notebook when I begin a new project. I have dozens of old notebooks smushed into a filing cabinet in my apartment. I took a truly tiresome typing class one summer when I was a teenager but did not really learn how to type until I had to write papers in college. I was a pretty terrible typist and was addicted to the use of wite-out. An old desk of mine which I still use as a storage space is so covered with white blobs of “liquid paper” that it looks like the victim of a bad paint job. I got my first fancy electric typewriter when I moved to New York and tried my hand at freelance writing (I was fine at the writing part but terrible at the constant search for work part, which is the major task of a freelance writer). I got my first computer—basically a high-end word processor—in 1985 with a grant for a play I was working on, and after that I could never go back to a typewriter. Now and then I read a profile of some writer who has clung to the typewriter as a tool, or a piece in the Style section of the Times about how younger writers are re-discovering the joys of typewriters. That makes me shudder. Writing on the screen has its drawbacks but speed and ease of revision is what it’s all about for me. My students find it amusing when I tell them that in my early manuscripts, cut-and-paste was not a function of keystrokes but of actually snipping sentences and paragraphs from one page and literally pasting them onto another page…But if I am stuck on something, or feel uncertain about what I am trying to write, I will still take a notebook and pen to a different room, or a bench in Washington Square Park, or a coffee place, and write that way.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

I can barely recall a time when I did not want to write. I wrote weird animal stories when I was about 7 and wrote the class play when I was in 5th Grade (it was about knights, a passion of mine at the time). I wrote poems and skits and terrible musicals when I was a teenager, then moved on to playwriting. My senior thesis in college was a strange and amusing rock musical called TWO DWARVES IN A CLOSET, which was a huge hit and filled me with the entirely untrue belief that I could make a living as a playwright. I worked in Off-off-Broadway theaters for a number of years, and had a bunch of plays produced in obscure locations; sometimes the cast was larger than the audience, which was not especially encouraging. And meanwhile I eked out a meager existence doing freelance writing and editorial work. Eventually, I realized it was novel writing that most beckoned to me, and I lurched into doing that. I never had a plan, really, just a desire to write and the belief that this was what I was supposed to do.

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

If you write only when you are inspired, you will not write much. I teach writing full-time at NYU and am the single father of an awesome yet time-consuming teenager; and my life has been dotted in recent years with some energy-draining family tragedies. So, I don’t really have a schedule of when I will write and I don’t get to write every day. Fortunately, I am obsessive enough—and I think obsession is the real sine qua non of being a writer—that eventually, I have to sit down and do it. Sometimes you read an essay by a noted author who says something like, If you do not write every day you are not a writer!  Or If you don’t write at a prescribed time for a set period of time you are doing it wrong! This is preposterous nonsense.  There is no right or wrong way to go about being a writer.  You have to make sure you write, though.  Research is not writing; talking about your writing isn’t writing; even brooding about your writing (one of my hobbies) isn’t writing.  You have to sit down and write when you can, whether you are inspired, focused, lethargic, scattered, or worried about the rest of your life.  Sometimes I only manage a paragraph or two but eventually, the paragraphs begin to add up to something.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

I read all the time, and I think that reading a lot (along with obsession) is one of the prerequisites for being a writer.  Because I teach writing and have to constantly read and comment on student essays, my reading for pleasure goes in fits and starts, but I am never without at least one book I am working on, and usually more than one.  Right now, I am reading Patti Smith’s memoir The M Train (which, alas, is not as compelling as her first memoir Just Kids, which I loved). I am also reading Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake by Leo Damrosch, not the kind of book I usually read but Blake’s surpassingly strange poetry and paintings are among my favorite inspirations. And I am working through the collected stories of Lucia Berlin, whose spare and bitter tales are powerful and sufficiently different from my own style that they are a tonic.  I have so many favorite writers that it is hard to name them all.  I remain a passionate fan of Dickens—I regularly re-read Great Expectations—and Jane Austen; it’s hard to beat Emma for well-observed characters. Nabokov is probably my favorite modern novelist.  I think all writers should read Lolita, which remains deeply disturbing and brilliant 60 years later. I love Kafka and Beckett and Harold Pinter. More recently, I think Lorrie Moore is a wonderful writer; I am a fan of T.C. Boyle and enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I think Ian McEwen’s Atonement is a thoroughly great modern novel (though I haven’t liked his more recent stuff much). And so on…I have very eclectic taste, though I also have mild contempt for a lot of stuff that gets hailed as works of genius.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

I can’t imagine hiring someone to edit my work.  That work is what writing is all about.  Someone said, All writing is rewriting and I wholeheartedly agree. I might not have said that when I first started out—it takes a while to learn how to truly edit and revise your work, and it doesn’t quite have the thrill of the initial creative burst.  But it’s ultimately more satisfying.

What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

I am passionate about titles and covers.  I often tell my students that if they can’t come up with a title, it’s because they don’t know what they have written. I have been fortunate to have really nice covers for my two novels.  For Come Away, I insisted that the cover include a detail from the mad 19th Century British painter Richard Dadd’s masterpiece, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.  Dadd, who killed his father and spent most of his life in a mental hospital (the original Bedlam), is an obsession of the novel’s narrator, and the painting echoes some of Come Away’s themes.  My editor’s first response was, Naaah we can’t do that. But I kept insisting, and to the publisher’s credit, they did what I asked.  I think that cover, weird though it is, really pops out.

Do you attend literary lunches or events?

I go to readings when I can. I have many friends who are writers, and I think it is important to support the work of your friends. I like to give readings myself. Lots of writers do not like this aspect of the job but to me it is, like teaching, the kind of performance—a version of myself—that I can manage. I don’t go to many conferences or literary events other than that. I am only occasionally feeling sociable enough to do that.

Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?

Sure. Find another career…no, not really. I do think I would tell myself to Not send out manuscripts before they were ready, before they had been laboriously revised. When I look back, especially, at a few stories and scripts I wrote in my early 20s, I am appalled at how under-edited they are, how unprofessional they appear. You should never give editors or anyone looking at your work a reason to dismiss it; typos, sentences that could be tighter, messiness of any kind will give the editorial assistant or script reader–who is already overworked—a reason to ignore the strong things in your work and focus on the weak things.

Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?

The first book that really influenced me and that I will never forget was David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd, which I read when I was 10. It was about a boy who meets a mythical creature on the hillside behind his new home, and goes on a series of magical adventures. The mingling of the ordinary (a move to a new house, parents who are distracted by typical adult issues) and the strange (a gryffon, a witch, Pan playing his pipes in a delirious ritual dance) was like that in a dream, and it utterly thrilled me. I think I have been trying ever since to re-capture that banal/mystical interplay. For years, I thought I was the only one who knew this book but it turns out to be the favorite book of virtually everyone who read it when they were 10!

Do your novels carry a message?

I don’t like messages, except maybe cryptic ones. If I could boil down my work into a sentence or two, why would I write it?  I don’t think most art worth anything has a discernible message.  I think a writer’s worldview is what is conveyed in a worthwhile novel, and I hope that this is true of my work.  A picture of the world, an image of the strange ways we act and react with others, a sense of the universe as a complex and not-entirely-understandable place, that’s what I strive toward.  Nabokov says somewhere that “reality” is the only word which does not make any sense without quotation marks.  That sensibility is one which I hope and believe I am conveying in Come Away.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

I think all writers put themselves into their books, even if it is only bits and pieces. Paul Brickner, the narrator of both Beautiful Somewhere Else and Come Away, sounds just like me (or so I am told), and I have certainly used events and details from my life in those novels (I did experience a hurricane on Cape Cod during a thwarted vacation many years ago; I did own a house in upstate New York and listened to WDST from Woodstock all the time there), though I always alter the incidents I make use of, and rarely give my own personal experience of that incident.  Paul is certainly rather more loosely-wrapped than I am (I have not been married 3 times; I have never imagined being abducted by aliens nor seen a sinister green child darting through my yard) but placing him in experiences that are cognates of my own gives me a lot of creative energy. With Come Away, I consciously tried to mythologize the childhood of my older daughter, who was born with a terrible genetic disorder and passed away last June.  The fear and knowledge that she would be taken away from us by her illness were what formed the core of Come Away.

If given the opportunity to do it all over again, would you change anything in your books?

I would probably change everything. That’s why I rarely re-read anything I have ever written—unless I am doing a reading, and then I focus on the performative aspect of what I wrote. A book is never really finished; you just have to stop at a certain point, and not obsessively focus on the flaws (which is all you will see, probably, when you look at it again).

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

I teach writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU. I have been doing this for more than 20 years, after a longish period of trying to be a freelance writer and juggling that with part-time teaching. I like it well enough much of the time and I am well aware that many writers would kill to have this job. I like talking to my students about writing and cajoling them into reading stuff they would probably not read on their own and thinking about things they might not think about on their own. I like my students, most of them anyway; a few deserve a good smack upside the head. Reading endless essays and finding something useful to say about them can be quite tiresome and for the most part, the writing problems are pretty much always the same, but when I perceive that I have actually somehow helped them figure something out about themselves, about their view of the world, about their ability to put that view into words, that part is (sometimes) gratifying. The rest of the job—endless, pointless meetings, wrangling over minor disagreements, norms and curriculum disputes and parsing memos from various deans—I hate that part and try to do as little of that as I can get away with. Certainly, this job gets in the way at times of my own work but one prefers to eat and it’s useful with a 15 year old daughter to have a roof over our heads and I know of not one single writer who does not have some other kind of job.

Have you ever considered stopping or retiring from writing?

It always strikes me as peculiar when I run into someone I haven’t seen for a while and she says, So are you still writing? Am I still breathing? Then, I guess I must be writing too. I don’t want to sound pretentious about this but if writing is not something you feel compelled to do, why do it? Not for the glory, certainly (still waiting for that), not for the money, certainly (ditto). As they get older, some writers say they do not have the energy or the will to write any more, but I am guessing they are still coming up with ideas and images and characters. Maybe the drive to put them on paper diminishes eventually but it’s hard to imagine that, say, Philip Roth (who declared he was retiring some years ago) is just sitting around watching TV.

Which book would you want adapted for the silver screen?

I think Come Away, which someone described as a “fever dream of a novel,” would make a really good movie.  It has love, danger, sex, autism, and the recurring image of a small green girl beckoning to the narrator’s daughter to escape from this world.  It has dreams and hallucinations and a happy(ish) ending.  Who could ask for anything more?  A friend of mine is (theoretically) trying to adapt it into a screenplay.  And we shall see.  It would require a certain offbeat sensibility for the director (Hello? Paging Wes Anderson!) but it’s quite visual and (I think; I believe) darkly funny and it only needs some amiable visionary to make it.

What is your current project?

I am currently about two-thirds of the way through a third novel, the third in an unplanned trilogy, sharing the same narrator and the same kind of world as Beautiful Somewhere Else and Come Away. A world which looks rather like our own but has, perhaps, even less certainty.  I never had any intention of writing a trilogy but the narrator Paul, his wife Nadia, and their daughter Spring keep showing up in my thoughts and daydreams, keep coming back to me even when I think I am done with them; I have also become rather fond of Nadia’s impossible father, Dr. Maire, a renowned expert on the secret world of the supernatural, who keeps filling my thoughts with eerie ideas. The working title is The Dangerous Blues.  A short piece of that novel was published last summer in the rather good online journal Vol. 1 Brooklyn/Sunday Stories. I would love to finish this draft of the novel by the end of summer 2016 but life being what it is, it’s too soon for me to tell if that will happen.